To be or not to be your valentine: Shakespearean expressions of love

Y’know, it’s entirely possible that if this whole ‘greatest dramatic poet who ever lived’ thing didn’t work out, William Shakespeare could’ve easily fallen back on composing greeting cards.

a hand grasping a pair of gloves on a table
Aestas = Summer [graphic] / Wenceslaus Hollar. 1641. Folger ART Box H737.5 no.8 (size S)

The story goes that one day in the 1570s or thereabouts, Stratford grammar schoolmaster Alexander Aspinall bought a pair of fine leather gloves to present to a lady in his life. Accompanying the gloves was a card with these immortal lines:

The gift is small,
The will is all:
Alexander Aspinall

Because of the punning reference to the name ‘Will’ in the second line, there’s a belief that young Shakespeare might actually have written this charmingly precocious (if not terribly distinguished) bit of doggerel. Aspinall probably bought his gloves from Shakespeare’s father John, a Stratford glover, to whom William might well have been apprenticed since his plays are filled with so many references to gloves and glove-making.

There’s no evidence for any of it, of course, but it’s fun to imagine, especially since the approach of Valentine’s Day gives us our annual reminder that many of Shakespeare’s expressions of love seem perfect for the greeting card format, such as:

  • “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
    And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
  • “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.” (Sonnet 116)
  • “Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?” (As You Like It)
The famous line, “Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind”, is spoken by Helena (Kim Wong), referring to her love for Demetrius (Desmond Bing), which is at first rebuffed but later requited. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Folger Theatre, 2016. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Shakespeare refers to Valentine’s Day three times in his plays, and in much the same way we think of it now: as a day to celebrate love and romantic partners. But his use of it in Hamlet — in a song sung by Ophelia, deeply traumatized by the news of the prince’s betrayal and her father’s death — is as dark as the death of the man that inspired the day.

Valentine was a Roman priest in 270 AD who, according to legend, defied Emperor Claudius II’s ban on all marriages and engagements and continued to marry people in secret. For this crime, he was arrested, tortured, and — on February 14 — brutally executed. Though historians differ on which martyred priest became the saint, apparently only this particular one sent a note before his execution signed, “your Valentine.”

The violent origins of Valentine’s Day seem more accurately reflected in how Shakespeare usually treats love: as complicated, sometimes comic, and frequently tragic. While many of Shakespeare’s words are beautiful out of context, in the dramatic moment of the plays they frequently take on darker meanings. Again, from Hamlet, these words —

Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.

— are incredibly moving. They’re in a love letter from Hamlet to Ophelia that she reads aloud and sound encouraging. But later in the play Hamlet tells Ophelia to her face, “I did love you once,” and then, almost immediately contradicts himself by saying, “You should not have believed me…I loved you not.” For a man who famously considers and debates every aspect of human existence (with the exception of how lines should be read by actors), Hamlet’s conflicting statements shouldn’t be surprising, but it doesn’t make them any less (in Ophelia’s case, literally) maddening.

Further examples abound in other Shakespeare plays. In King Lear, for instance, Goneril tells her father, “I do love you more than word can wield the matter,” which, again, sounds beautiful and in fact Lear finds it very convincing. But in the context of the scene, there’s every reason for the audience to question Goneril’s sincerity.         

Even if he could have returned to his (imagined) earlier career scribbling greeting card verse, Shakespeare probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it. He much preferred penning nuanced and complicated tales of love. A Midsummer Night’s Dream might well contain the most accurate line Shakespeare ever wrote about “true love,” which is that “the course of [it] never did run smooth.” And it’s important to remember that while Romeo and Juliet is widely considered one of the most romantic plays ever written, it also ends in tragedy.

Perhaps we can fill the gap in the market by creating our own Shakespeare Valentine’s Day cards. Cartoonist Mya Gosling, creator of the GoodTickleBrain Shakespearean web comic, suggests this valentine from Macbeth: “The couple that slays together… stays together.” And this one, from Richard III: “I only killed your husband and father-in-law because you were so beautiful. Marry me.” These perfectly capture the complicated nature of Shakespearean love.

GoodTickleBrain Valentine's Day webcomicFor a lighter take, my book Pop-Up Shakespeare (co-written by Reed Martin with illustrations by Jennie Maizels) contains these fun options:

“If music be the food of love, you’re a symphony!”

Exit, pursued by a bear hug!”

“Violets are blue, roses are red, you’re my Juliet, please don’t end up dead.”

In fairness to Ophelia, if I ever received this frustrating valentine from a waffling Hamlet-like romantic partner — “To be or not to be your valentine, that is the question!” — I might well go mad too.

To be or not to be your Valentine. That is the question!

Illustrations © 2017 Jennie Maizels.
From POP UP SHAKESPEARE written by Austin Tichenor and Reed Martin and Illustrated by Jennie Maizels. Reproduced by permission of Walker Books Ltd, London SE11 5HJ
www.walker.co.uk

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